Turmeric (Curcumin): A Complete Scientific Guide

Turmeric powder
Turmeric is a spice with a bright yellow hue.Nataša Mandić/Stocksy

These days, turmeric is everywhere. You may see those beautiful yellow turmeric lattes being whipped up in coffee shops, turmeric poached eggs for brunch, and turmeric in smoothies and chocolate bars. And while it’s obvious that this spice is gorgeous, let’s take a step back and make sense of what's behind its staying power.

What Is Turmeric?

Turmeric is an herb plant that grows in India and Central America. You most likely know it because of its near-ubiquity in Indian cuisine.

If you’re eating fresh turmeric (as opposed to taking it as a supplement; more on that later), you may find the root in the produce aisle at the grocery store — it looks similar to ginger, but smaller.
You can also buy turmeric ground as a spice, sold as turmeric on its own or in spice blends such as curry powder. Turmeric has a long history in Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for health problems like pain and fatigue.

Indeed, it’s been used as a culinary spice and in religious ceremonies in Southeast Asia for 4,000 years.

As a recently anointed "superfood," it's used by many people as a modern-day natural medicine for reducing inflammation and treating disease.

Common Questions & Answers

What are the health benefits of turmeric?
Turmeric contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which may offer health benefits. Early studies say turmeric may help keep your heart, joints, and brain healthy. It also may play a role in protecting against cancer and diabetes, though more research is needed.
Can turmeric help you lose weight?
Possibly. One study suggests curcumin, the main active ingredient in turmeric, may boost weight loss in people with metabolic syndrome by nearly 5 percent if you take 800 milligrams (mg) with 8 mg piperine — a compound in black pepper — twice daily for 30 days. But before taking any supplement, talk to your doctor.
What are the side effects of turmeric?
There aren't many. But some people have reported diarrhea, headache, skin rash, and yellow stool at doses ranging from 500 to 12,000 mg. Turmeric may also interact with certain drugs, such as blood thinners, antidepressants, chemotherapy treatments, and hypoglycemic diabetes medication.
Is it safe to take turmeric every day?
There are no long-term studies to show whether it’s safe to take turmeric supplements every day. Studies suggest it is safe at small doses, but be aware that high doses or long-term use may cause GI issues in some people. Turmeric may also interfere with certain medications and health conditions.
How much turmeric should you take a day?
There’s no standard turmeric dosage, but in one study, 1,000 mg relieved arthritis symptoms, while 1.4 grams of turmeric extract helped lower triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels in people with high cholesterol. Talk with your healthcare team to find the right dosage for you.

Curcumin vs. Turmeric: What’s the Difference?

Curcumin and turmeric are two terms used interchangeably, but the truth is there’s a distinction between the two.


The spice turmeric is composed of more than 100 compounds.


The compound most talked about is curcumin, the active compound that’s credited with most of turmeric's health benefits. While turmeric gets its bright yellow hue from curcumin, this compound makes up only about 5 percent of the spice, research shows.

Most of the benefits of turmeric are credited to curcumin (more on this later).

Turmeric Nutrition Facts

One teaspoon (tsp) of ground turmeric has 9 calories. More surprising is that it offers some protein — 0.3 grams (g) — and fiber (0.7 g), impressive given how much is present in a small amount, note the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate guidelines.

With 1.65 milligrams (mg) of iron, it also provides about 9 percent of the daily value for this nutrient.

That said, it’s likely that you’re eating far less than 1 tsp at a sitting. A tsp may be added to an entire recipe, for instance.

What Are the Potential Health Benefits of Turmeric?

Turmeric is more than merely a bright, flavorful spice; it’s also loaded with potential health benefits. Many of its perks have been credited to curcumin, the primary plant compound that gives turmeric its bold yellow color, according to a review.

One key thing to keep in mind: Although there have been more than 400 clinical trials evaluating turmeric for various health conditions, the overall challenge with the research is that the turmeric supplements studied are all different in terms of formulation (often proprietary) and dosage, so it’s difficult to know what and how much actually works, making it a challenge for doctors to confidently make recommendations.

With that major limitation in mind, here are several possible ways turmeric and curcumin may benefit your health.

Ease Arthritis Pain 

Curcumin contains anti-inflammatory properties, making it a potentially effective treatment for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.

For example, a small past study found that participants with rheumatoid arthritis who took a 500 mg curcumin supplement twice daily for eight weeks saw greater improvements in joint tenderness and swelling compared with patients who took a prescription anti-inflammatory or a combination of the two treatments.

Reduce Depression Symptoms

Depression has been linked with lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein in the brain and spinal cord that regulates communication between nerve cells. In rats, curcumin effectively increased levels of BDNF over the course of 10 days, according to past research.

In humans with major depressive disorder, those who took 1,000 mg of curcumin daily for six weeks saw similar improvements to those who took an antidepressant or a combination of the two treatments, according to a small study.

In addition to having an effect on certain neurotransmitters, turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties may indeed reduce inflammation, which may also play a role in the development of depression in some folks.

Contribute to Treating Diabetes

Thanks to turmeric’s anti-inflammatory effects, it’s also a promising treatment for inflammatory conditions, including diabetes. Curcumin may help prevent type 2 diabetes by improving insulin resistance, lowering high blood sugar, and reducing high cholesterol, according to a review.

Complement Cancer Treatment

It’s unclear whether turmeric can prevent cancer growth in humans, according to the American Cancer Society.

Yet this spice may offer potential, thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, according to a past review. Authors of past research note that turmeric (curcumin specifically) may prevent tumors from forming and becoming cancerous, though more research in humans is needed.

Support Skin Health

Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant-rich spice, making it potentially effective for treating skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis, though more studies are needed. Due to its poor bioavailability, it likely wouldn’t be a standalone treatment for skin disorders but rather complement existing treatments, write the authors of an article published in September 2019 in Nutrients, according to a scientific article.

Can Turmeric Help With Weight Loss?

It’s unclear whether turmeric can actually help you lose weight, but preliminary research suggests it may enhance your efforts. In one study of 44 people with metabolic syndrome — a condition characterized by obesity, high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides, insulin resistance, and low levels of HDL “good” cholesterol — those who lost nearly 2 percent of their body weight from diet and lifestyle changes in the first month of the study added an 800 mg curcumin supplement to their daily diet. After 30 days, this group lost close to 5 percent of their body weight, helping them reduce their body fat by more than 8 percent. (Researchers had added 8 mg of piperine, the active compound in black pepper, to the supplement; piperine helps the body absorb more of the curcumin.)

Forms of Turmeric

There are several ways to try turmeric.

As a Root

Find this in the refrigerated section of the produce aisle at many grocery and specialty stores, as well as online. You may also find dried turmeric root in your local specialty store. Turmeric root looks squiggly, similar to ginger. Scrape off the peel with a spoon before using. Fresh turmeric should be refrigerated in an airtight container, and will keep up to a week.

As a Tea

You can make what’s called “golden milk” by whisking together about 1 tsp of turmeric with other spices (such as cinnamon and black pepper) into warmed milk and your sweetener of choice. You can also buy turmeric tea in tea bag form, available from brands like The Republic of Tea and Swanson Organic.

As a Spice

Look for turmeric as a ground spice in your spice aisle at the grocery store. Turmeric is also the main component of curry powder. Keep spice jars in a cool, dark place to prevent spoilage. Most companies include the “best by” dates; you should aim to use it before then. Buy large containers of turmeric only when you know you’re going to use all of it by the listed date. Look for it in the bulk section of a co-op or specialty store, so you can buy just as much as you’re going to use.

As a Supplement

For more potency, you may opt for a turmeric or curcumin supplement, available at health food stores, grocery stores, and online. These are available in formulations like soft gels and capsules.

Turmeric Supplements

A popular way to reap turmeric's potential benefits is by popping a supplement, often in capsule form. Apart from discussing any supplement — including turmeric or curcumin — with your healthcare team before trying it, here’s what to keep in mind.

Side Effects

Turmeric is generally safe, but consuming it in high doses or over long periods of time may upset your stomach.

A small, past study of 24 people found that taking 500 to 12,000 mg of curcumin was associated with various mild side effects in only 7 out of the 24 participants. Side effects included diarrhea, skin rash, yellow stool, and headache, but these were not dose related.

Drug Interactions

Another possible interaction: The spice can enhance the effect of blood thinners, possibly increasing bleeding risk, so if you’re on the medication Coumadin or Jantoven (warfarin), your doctor needs to know if you also use turmeric, according to Oregon State University.

Past research shows that curcumin has anticoagulant properties of its own, so combining the two can compound this effect.

Indeed, a review warned that curcumin and turmeric may interact with a variety of medications, including antidepressants, antibiotics, antihistamines, cardiac medications, and chemotherapy treatments.

Check with your doctor if you’re taking any of these medications.
People who are pregnant or nursing may safely eat foods with turmeric, but should avoid taking the spice in supplement form. Likewise, talk to your doctor if you have a history of gallstones or stomach ulcers, as curcumin supplements may increase your risk of those complications. Turmeric may also affect blood sugar levels in people who take medications for diabetes.


Supplements contain a significantly higher concentration of curcumin and other curcuminoids than you’d find in ground turmeric. A supplement with 0.5 g of turmeric extract provides 400 mg of curcuminoids, while 0.5 g of ground turmeric contains only 15 mg of curcuminoids, finds third-party supplement testing.

With that in mind, taking up to 12 g (12,000 mg) of curcumin daily is likely safe, according to a review.

That said, the dosage used in research studies is usually lower than 12 g, which suggests you may see benefits at a lower dose. For example, a review found that dosage ranged from 100 to 2,000 mg (that’s 0.1 to 2 g) per day, with doses typically taken 500 mg (0.5 g) at a time.

Keep in mind that turmeric or curcumin may interact with the medications mentioned earlier.

How to Eat Turmeric

If you’re consuming ground turmeric and adding it to your dishes, it’s relatively safe.

Adding this spice to your food probably won’t cause any negative effects.
That said, know that in general, curcumin from turmeric is not readily bioavailable to the body (meaning it’s not absorbed and metabolized well), and a review notes that adding a sprinkle of turmeric here or there to recipes will unlikely deliver enough to the active compounds to have a meaningful effect.

That’s why you may consider taking turmeric or curcumin in supplement form. Just keep the aforementioned risks in mind.

If you choose to add the spice to your dishes, expect a gorgeous bright, yellow-orange hue, as well as an earthy or musky flavor.

You can use turmeric in a variety of recipes:

  • Rice dishes, like paella
  • Frittatas
  • Added to poaching water to cook an egg
  • In a smoothie (blend the fresh root or powdered spice)
  • In Indian curries
  • In golden milk or a “turmeric latte”
  • Added to soups
  • As part of a spice rub for fish or poultry
  • Dusted on vegetables before roasting
  • To make a curry chicken salad
  • To zest up homemade salad dressing

Another way to enjoy turmeric? In a warm, comforting mug of tea.

Turmeric and Black Pepper

To increase the absorption of ground turmeric when used in recipes, try combining it with black pepper (Piper nigrum), which may enhance its strength in the body. A past study reveals that combining 20 mg of piperine, the main ingredient of black pepper, and 2 g of curcumin increases the bioavailability, or the amount of curcumin that can be absorbed by the body, by as much as 2,000 percent.

According to a review, piperine increases the bioavailability of many nutrients, mainly by preventing enzymes from breaking down foods and other substances.

If you plan on using turmeric or curcumin for health purposes, be sure to find a supplement that contains piperine.


Whether eaten as a spice added to home-cooked meals or taken as a supplement, turmeric, and especially its active compound, curcumin, provides potential anti-inflammatory health benefits. Next time you’re in the spice aisle, try picking some up to lend a pretty orange hue to your next meal, or consult your healthcare team on turmeric supplements if that’s more up your alley.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

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